A major wildlife habitat and water-based recreation area located midway between Tucson and Phoenix is another step closer to reality after a state panel approved Pinal County’s request for a $2.4 million grant last month.
It obviously didn’t hurt the county’s cause that when the state Water Protection Coordination Fund Commission met at the Casa Grande Holiday Inn, the small meeting room was packed with more than 75 supporters wearing large, yellow “Keep Picacho Reservoir Wet’ buttons.
At the two-day meeting, the panel awarded 24 grants totaling $6.86 million for riparian habitat protection projects around the state, and nearly one-third of that amount went to Pinal County’s project.
As implied by the buttons that the supporters wore, the county will use the money to buy surplus Central Arizona Project water to maintain a minimum pool of water at a shallow, 100-year-old reservoir between the towns of Coolidge and Picacho.
“The plan is not to keep the reservoir full,’ says Brad Gair, director of Pinal County’s Department of Civil Works. “In fact, fluctuations in the water level are important to the natural evolution of the habitat. We are simply trying to avoid the lengthy, catastrophic dry-ups that can be very harmful to the wildlife.’
Picacho Reservoir was built in the late 1800s by the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ San Carlos Irrigation Project to store Gila River water. It historically has been lowered whenever farmers near Coolidge needed water.
In 1990, it was completely dry for several months. Last year, the level was dropped so low that the Game and Fish Commission briefly removed fishing limits and methods restrictions because of fears that any fish that might still be alive were doomed.
The $2.4 million grant for riparian habitat protection is just the first step sought by a coalition of 25 state and federal agencies brought together by Pinal County.
Earlier this year, the county paid $25,000 for a Picacho Reservoir Enhancement Study for Water Recharge and Allied Purposes. That study listed six possible uses for the existing reservoir, with various options. Several options called for diverting washes to collect runoff from the Picacho Mountains and creating separate wetlands and recreational waters.
One option proposed dredging the present reservoir so that it would store more water from the Gila River. That proposal apparently has been rejected because of possible harm to 35 “sensitive’ species of wildlife, such as bald eagles and lesser long-nosed bats, that have been reported using the site.
Instead, the county now wants to build a new, 650-acre recreational lake close to the existing reservoir. To that end, officials have asked the State Parks Department for a $7.5 million grant to build the lake and develop fishing, boating, camping and other facilities.
Picacho Reservoir is reached by taking the Coolidge Exit off Interstate 10, then driving about 10 miles to Selma Highway (a misnomer because it is a dirt road), and turning right, crossing railroad tracks and following a canal bank for about one mile to the reservoir’s levy.
Citizen Outdoors Editor Bill Quimby may be reached at 573-4635 (fax 573-4569).